by Andy Marino
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins India (November 1, 2014)
On 27 February 2002, 59 people in a train returning from Ayodhya to Ahmedabad were burned to death in Gujarat. Subsequently, there were riots all over Gujarat. In all, close to 900 people died and more than 2,500 were injured. For the next 12 years, almost everyone lay the blame for these riots squarely at the feet of Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. He has been neither formally charged nor convicted for any of these alleged offences.
More than that, since 2002, whatever success he achieved as Gujarat’s Chief Minister became secondary to a concerted effort by the media and public to demonise him. In fact, in a speech on 1 December 2007, Sonia Gandhi went so far as to suggest that Modi was ‘maut ke saudagar’ (the merchant of death); human rights activists like Shabnam Hashmi made parallels between Modi and Hitler; and, celebrated writers like Arundhati Roy criticised him in spite of evidence of false facts and obvious success.
All this information is available in a political biography called, ‘Narendra Modi: A Political Biography’ by Andy Marino. His research included studying voluminous documents and having interviews with Modi and those around him.
How did Modi react to all this ‘Modi-bashing’? Apparently, Modi decided early on to, ‘let the media do its work: there will be no confrontation.’ Nonetheless, the timing of the publication of this book (the eBook format was published just before Modi became Prime Minister of India last year) suggests that it’s Modi’s attempt, through Marino, to tell his side of the story.
The word that Marino uses to explain Modi’s ways is ‘detachment’. For instance, since he’d attended the local youth meetings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when he was 8 years old, many assumed that Modi remained a RSS man. When he became the leader of the RSS’s political arm, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many assumed he was a BJP man. In truth Modi was nobody’s man. As Modi says, “In a way I am an apolitical person.”
Even in his personal life, the only person he has shown devotion to is his mother, Hiraben. His relations with his siblings remain benign and they don’t feature in his political life. As for his marital status, which Modi never speaks about, Marino carefully examines each account of the ‘marriage’ until you’re sure Modi never entered into a marriage with Jashodaben in law or custom. Clearly, Modi is a man who won’t do something he doesn’t want to no matter what the pressures are to conform to a settled manner.
Modi’s refusal to set the record straight about his marital status may be criticised as the biographer’s failure to elicit vital information. Then again, this is a political biography of the man, not his personal life. Keeping this in mind, what is implied in the narrative from then on is how the ruling Congress party and its leaders shifted their duties from serving the nation and its people to the Nehru dynasty.
To suggest that Modi is against authority is to misjudge him. On the contrary, when Modi was 17 years old, he left home, but only after he obtained his parents’ blessings. He wanted to walk in the footsteps of Swami Vivekananda and become a monk. All 3 ashrams rejected Modi with the last one saying that his destiny lay elsewhere.
Marino paints Modi as a man who continues to look to his India’s culture to modernise it without leaving its identity behind. He is a staunch believer that, ‘Under the country’s constitutional definitions, one was first an Indian, and only after that a Hindu or a Sikh or a Muslim or anything else.
Marino then plots the social and political disasters when the opposite of this belief was championed by leaders of yesteryear. For example, in the 1980s, Shah Bano Begum sought alimony from her ex-husband because it was her right as a citizen of India. Her ex-husband objected and filed a suit accusing the Indian state of ‘interfering in the personal lives’ of Muslims. The Supreme Court decided that Shah Bano was entitled to this alimony. Rajiv Gandhi passed a law overturning this decision. The repercussions were that Muslim women were denied their rights as Indian citizens and there was now officially one law for Muslims and another for everybody else.
Yet another example is how, before, 2001, Congress leaders in Gujarat believed that political and moral high ground ‘could be claimed by identifying the electorate in terms of their social status,’ and offering them incentives, be they in cash or kind, to vote for the Congress. The people of Gujarat were divided into 4 and known collectively as ‘KHAM’: Kshatriyas, a ‘warrior’ caste; Harijans, the underclass; Adivasis, forest dwellers and tribal communities; and, Muslims, the minority.
From the moment he came to power, Modi rejected this altogether and provided an alternative: development. Translating his proposed programmes into terms that would be instantly understandable, he outlined 5 pillars of development (water, energy, people, education and security) and called them ‘Shaktis’ (Sansrkit for ‘Sacred Force’). Modi believed that Gujarat already had in place policies that dealt with all these arears, but he would transform them, not destroy the old and make way for something new based entirely on western theory. It was an exercise in removing government from people’s lives and replacing it with governance. The result was a civic revolution and worked because Gujaratis saw that development was happening everywhere and people were given their full rights as citizens rather than being treated as a majority or minority.
One particularly thought-provoking anecdote remains long after finishing the book. It transpired that there was time a journalist confronted Modi and asked him what he had done for Muslims:
‘‘Nothing,’ Modi answered.
The journalist was scandalized [sic]: ‘So you admit it?’
Modi said, ‘Ask me what I had done for Hindus.’
‘What have you done for Hindus?’
‘Nothing. Everything I have done has been for Gujaratis.’’
Is it possible to envisage a future where our leaders may answer similar questions with, ‘Everything I have done has been for Malaysians’?
Reviewed by Moira Tan